Lisser Hall’s 21st-Century Encore

A complete overhaul helps the historic building better feature the creative work of today’s students with support from philanthropists Ellen and Glenn Voyles.

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By Sarah J. Stevenson, MFA ’04

It takes the efforts of an entire community to revitalize a building, especially one with such a prominent history as Lisser Hall. From the experimental dance performances of Marian Van Tuyl to the modernist music of John Cage, Lisser’s venerable stage has hosted more than a century’s worth of artistic innovators.

“It’s in the bones here,” says Ann Murphy, the current Dance Department head and part of the planning team for the renovation, which was unveiled in September 2018.

The new 21st-century Lisser promises to reinvigorate the groundbreaking role of the arts at Mills, preserving the building’s history while also giving it some long-overdue upgrades. Everyone involved in the project hails the interdisciplinary and collaborative potential of the renovation, which includes a modernized auditorium, state-of-the-art technological innovations, a more spacious lobby area, and a brand-new outdoor terrace overlooking Leona Creek. The “Mills triangle” at the center of campus, formed by Lisser, F.W. Olin Library, and Rothwell Center, will once again be a vibrant, active nexus for students and visitors alike.

In just the last few months, there’s already been an infusion of new energy and a sense of excitement. Like any major production, though, the final show is just the part the audience sees; much of the hard work happens backstage, and that was true of this project as well.

Behind the Scenes

The story of Lisser Hall dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when the first incarnation of the building was named in honor of Louis Lisser, first head of the Music Department. Over the decades, the bustling and versatile space was used for musical, dance, and theater performances, as well as receptions, meetings, and commencements.

When automobiles became widespread in California, the front of the campus was moved from Wetmore Gate on Seminary Avenue to Richards Gate on MacArthur Boulevard, prompting a massive structural changes to Lisser Hall in the late 1920s. Architect Walter Ratcliff rotated the interior orientation of the auditorium 180 degrees so the stage moved to the location of the original entrance at the building’s south end. He also transformed the original stage area into a lobby accessed through a new raised entry portico on the north side. In the 1970s, another set of upgrades enlarged the lobby and added a small studio theater upstairs.

By the time the most recent overhaul was proposed in the College’s 2013-2018 Strategic Plan, championed by past president Alecia DeCoudreaux, it had been nearly 50 years since the last major renovation, and Lisser was showing its age. Although it provided a home for dance performances—and, beginning in 2014, for the revived Theater Studies Program—it was plagued by minor hazards and general neglect. Unused musical equipment filled the storage rooms. Perhaps most surprising, the building had not been seismically retrofitted; it still retained its original brick foundations.

“Dark and dreary. Unsafe. Ghost-filled. It wasn’t something that drew you,” Murphy says. “The building seemed dead.” The doors to Lisser Hall were typically kept locked unless it was in use for a dance performance. The old auditorium-style seating was deteriorating, and the heavy red velvet drapes made the inside unappealingly gloomy. While still beautiful and historic, Lisser was underutilized and often overlooked.

If ever there was a campus building in need of staging a comeback, it was Lisser Hall.

Mounting the Production

Achieving the complex and ambitious vision wasn’t easy. Beginning with the design stage in early 2016, the plan for Lisser’s transformation involved a lot of moving parts, not to mention legions of people. For instance, the dance and theater programs needed a performance space for use while Lisser was out of service, so the former bookstore in Rothwell Center was turned into a black-box theater.

Construction work, which began in June 2017, ran into more than one unanticipated setback. Karen Fiene, director of construction compliance and sustainability for the Mills campus, was one of the principal players; she says that compared to her work on the renovation of the Music Building in 2008, Lisser Hall presented a unique set of challenges.

“It was like a treasure hunt. It was a surprise every week,” Fiene says. “None of the surprises were inexpensive.” After construction began and scaffolding allowed the crew to access the ceiling, a structural assessment revealed that the wooden trusses along the interior ceiling needed reinforcing—a necessary seismic upgrade that added three months to the project.

On top of that, there were no blueprints for the original 1901 auditorium. “They were lost in the mists of time,” says Jim Graham, Lisser’s technical director and manager and an employee of the College since 1972. “We had to create them after the fact.”

Fortunately, Graham—a graduate of the Mills College Children’s School and the son of former dance professor Eleanor Lauer, MA ’40—knew the building inside and out. “He knew where all the bodies were hidden,” Fiene says.

“Every person involved added something to the project,” she remarks, from the outside architects and engineers—ELS Architects and Ansari Engineers, respectively—to the in-house team, which included a wide range of professors of theater, music, art, and dance, as well as employees from the Campus Facilities Department. Meanwhile, Presidents DeCoudreaux and Beth Hillman, fundraisers in the Office of Institutional Advancement, and the trustees who served on the Lisser Hall Campaign Cabinet worked in coordination with the renovation team to raise $10.8 million for the project. Fiene also credits the contractor, Oliver and Company, for its flexibility and expertise in dealing with the unexpected.

Between the wide array of stakeholders and the many surprises along the way, the project was a challenge from the get-go, but Murphy describes the overall process as “collaborative and respectful.” The plans remained centered on the needs of the arts programs, striking a balance between economy and need. “I thought that expressed something so optimistic about Mills,” she says, “because it’s a big project and a lot is on the line.”

It was an astounding group effort. As Fiene put it, “It takes a village.”

Center Stage

Walking into the new Lisser Hall feels different today than it did just two years ago, beginning with the very first step across the threshold. The new lobby is modern, light, and airy, with a maple floor . It’s larger than its predecessor, and it includes a new elevator, a ticket booth, and renovated restrooms.

“We made a conscious effort to have it be a contemporary space,” Fiene says. “There wasn’t much of the historic detail left anyway, and we had to basically gut it in order to rebuild the structural components.” On the advice of Stephanie Hanor, director of the Mills College Art Museum, the renovation team decided to make the simple open lobby into a multipurpose area, available for receptions, rentals, or art exhibits.

In comparison to the modern lobby, the Marilyn McArthur Holland ’45 Performance Theater—named in honor of the Holland family, who directed a generous bequest to the renovation project—is a seamless blend of old and new. “Most of the work we did is hidden,” Fiene says. Special care was taken to keep the main auditorium virtually intact in appearance while adding much-needed features such as a sprung floor for dancers, telescoping rows of seating for different types of productions and better sight lines, and a system of electric shades for the windows—one blackout, one sunshade—that can be separately toggled and hidden in the upper valance at the push of a button. “We were able to restore what I think was the original light quality in the building,” she adds.

Graham, meanwhile, says he’s most excited about upgrades to the sound and lighting. The redesign of the lighting system allows for more options on stage, and the state-of-the-art Meyer Sound Laboratories system rivals the one in the Music Building’s Littlefield Concert Hall. “There’s almost nothing that isn’t better,” he says. Thanks to the new floor and flexible seats, dancers can use the stage or the auditorium floor itself as a performance space without risking injury. And, of course, there are the improvements to accessibility and seismic safety. “It was fascinating to watch them essentially put a steel skeleton into a building that was already there,” he says.

Even the upstairs rooms have been given a face-lift, with the small rehearsal theater turning into a 21st-century digital performance studio while still retaining the original proscenium arch from 1901, which is now directly above the lobby instead of the stage. However, the standout feature of the new Lisser is a beautiful terrace with a wooden deck that opens out from the lobby and overlooks the creek, integrating the building into the heart of the campus.

Rave Reviews

So far, the response to the newly reopened Lisser Hall has been stellar, and the building is already a hub of activity. During Reunion in September, Lisser hosted an inaugural presentation for alumnae and donors, complete with speakers, dancers, and an outdoor reception on the brand-new terrace. The very first public event, held on November 7, was a lecture and performance by composer Meredith Monk, and Mills College’s own Repertory Dance Company held its first recital in the new auditorium in December.

“Our dancers are really excited to be able to dance there,” Murphy says. “Everybody’s pretty dazzled, because there’s no unnecessary stuff, it’s just peeled back to the beautiful bones, which have been preserved.”

Victor Talmadge, director of theater studies, says that he’s thrilled about the number of performance spaces available to students. He adds that there’s huge flexibility in retaining the smaller, more intimate black-box theater in Rothwell Center while also having the larger venue available at Lisser Hall.

“The Theater Studies Program is growing in leaps and bounds,” Talmadge says. “When I started in 2014, we had two theater majors; now, we have 15.” Featuring multiple performance venues and dynamic, up-to-date equipment is a vital part of maintaining that growth. The program’s first play in the new Lisser, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, is planned for the spring, and Talmadge is looking forward to testing out the possibilities of the auditorium.

“One of the wonderful things about the space is that it’s flexible, so it doesn’t have to be a proscenium,” he says. “We could stage a play on the floor if we wanted to.”

Breaking the Fourth Wall

As a mid-sized performance space, Lisser also fulfills a need in the larger community beyond Mills, according to Murphy. It has helped the College develop and explore partnerships with local organizations, including Dimensions Dance Theater in Oakland; Dancers’ Group, a Bay Area dance service organization with an interest in planning a summer dance festival at Mills; and Ubuntu Theater Project, an Oakland-based social-justice theatre company. “Lisser’s existence is a great selling point,” Talmadge says.

“My hope—everybody’s hope, really—is that Lisser is part of a real move to open the campus to the external world, and have the external world come in more,” Murphy adds.

An openness to interdisciplinary collaboration among the arts, too, will continue to be a hallmark of the new Lisser Hall. “I’m in talks now for our upcoming production in the spring to be designed by art students,” Talmadge says. And, of course, there’s the multipurpose potential of the lobby, which is already in use as an exhibit space. The series of photos currently on display depicts the contents of a time capsule that was buried within Lisser’s original 1901 cornerstone.

The photos, taken by Fiene, evoke the blending of old and new that Lisser Hall itself embodies. The 1901 time capsule had suffered water damage, and the repeated soaking and drying over the course of a century created tree-ring-like patterns on the surviving contents. Fiene captured the patterns on her phone camera, and they were so compelling that Housing Operations Manager Phaedra Gauci ’05 decided to create scarves printed with images of documents from the capsule.

A new time capsule has been enclosed within the cornerstone, which has been moved to a safer, more prominent location in Lisser’s walls, near the ramp to the terrace. The building itself is the true time capsule, though, and thanks to the tireless efforts of all those involved in its revitalization, Lisser Hall and its history will surely play a prominent—and structurally stable—role in the community for decades to come.